Exploring California’s College Towns
- Written byDarren Elms
The Golden State, home to some of our country’s finest educational institutions, also boasts some of the best “college town” experiences. Even if you don’t have a teen heading off to one of our three favorite California university destinations, that shouldn’t stop you from learning what these quick and easy getaways have to offer.
San Luis Obispo
This charming town off the 101 halfway between LA and the Bay Area is anchored by the well respected Cal Poly campus, known for its incredible agricultural and architectural studies, among others. The town of SLO is anything but slow these days, thanks to an increased interest in jazzing up its historic downtown center.
Where to Stay
Granada Hotel & Bistro is the “old meets new” kid on the block. The 1920s exposed-brick building has been meticulously renovated for its new debut as a boutique hotel, offering a range of accommodations and four spacious balcony suites. Each guest room features exposed-brick walls, wood floors, marble-top vanities, nickel-plated fixtures, Italian linens by Fili D’oro, goose down duvet and pillows and signature seersucker robes. There’s also a decidedly vintage ‘70s Spanish theme going on here … think fringed accent curtains and moody paintings of flamenco dancers.
Where to Dine
Already an established eatery in town, the Bistro has been incorporated into the Granada Hotel and re-designed in industrial chic. The restaurant continues to serve farm-to-table dishes inspired by Spanish, Cuban and South American cuisine. Tapas, small plates, al pastor, charcuterie and the freshest local seafood are complemented by an eclectic wine list including Spanish and Latin American selections and a range of California’s artisan wine producers. A selection of meats, cheeses and prepared picnic baskets are available at the hotel’s signature boutique, Butch. (1126 Morro Street, granadahotelandbistro.com)
In addition to the great eateries in the downtown core, SLO enjoys a close approximation to Palos Robles, often called “the next Napa,” though we think it’s in a class of its own. One of our favorite restaurants, Artisan, offers farm-to-table goodness in a bustling, aromatic environment that showcases the chefs at work on view from your table.
Depending on the season, expect a delectable variety of meats, cheeses, fresh produce, desserts and excellent wine and beer pairings. (843 12th Street, Paso Robles, artisanpasorobles.com)
And, of course, a trip to the area wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Madonna Inn, the equally charming and kooky pink ranch that hosts two singular dining options for the kitsch and comfort. (100 Madonna Road, madonnainn.com)
Where to Play
Downtown SLO has everything from retail staples like Apple and Urban Outfitters to smaller local boutiques. Evenings on the street are energetic, with live music coming from local venues and kids hitting the coffee shops for a late-night study session. For more adult fare, take advantage of the tasting rooms along the Central Coast’s wine region, then grab a tour of Hearst Castle in nearby San Simeon or stretch out on sunny Pismo Beach.
Home to UC Berkeley, this legendary town made a name for itself as protest central in the late 1960s and inspired a nationwide youth movement. Things may have chilled a bit since, but there’s still an air of rebellion on the streets of Berkeley. Lucky for us, it’s still pretty groovy.
Where to Stay
When the prestigious Claremont Hotel & Spa opened in 1915, it was the largest of its kind on the Pacific Coast, hosting not only various living quarters but a private school and a radio station. A lot has changed over the years, including ownership, interiors and a one-time alcohol-free mandate from the state, given the hotel’s proximity to UC Berkeley. But the one thing that endures is first-class service. There are 279 guest rooms in all, and not two are exactly alike—each has their own mix of old-world and California stylings. As an added bonus, all those with seasonal allergies will rest easily with a selection of allergen-free rooms for sensitive travelers. And, really, how can you top those views of the bay? (41 Tunnel Road, claremontresort.com)
Where to Eat
When in Berkeley, go eclectic. Sample a variety of dining spots and feast on specialties from across the globe. Chez Panisse frequently tops the “best of” lists with a menu of hand-cut pastas, seasonal sides and impeccable seafood. (1517 Shattuck Avenue, chezpanisse.com)
Indian lovers will want to swing by House of Curries for not only the namesake dishes but also a variety of vindaloos, kebabs and that tasty garlic naan. (2985 College Avenue, houseofcurries.com)
Vegetarians delight at Saturn Café, where fried delights and optional vegan desserts and shakes overshadow plain salads and tofu. Think ‘50s dinner gone green. (2175 Allston Way, saturncafe.com)
Where to Play
Berkeley’s thriving cultural scene is home to hundreds of arts organizations, artists and performers. Creative spark infuses Berkeley with everyday wonders ranging from vibrant street art and public galleries to major venues, such as the Downtown Berkeley Arts District and Berkeley Art Museum. Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Cal Performances present world-class productions applauded by audiences and acclaimed by critics. Even nature enthusiasts will get their kicks here, with championship golfing, nature walks, rock climbing, botanic gardens, sailing and more. Peace out!
Stanford University may be a talent pool for nearby Silicon Valley, but Palo Alto is where the genius ditch the laptops and recreate. The campus is gorgeous and warrants a tour, and you’ll find plenty of pleasure along nearby University Avenue.
Where to Stay
Nestled amid 16 pristine acres in neighboring Menlo Park, Rosewood Sand Hill melds the rich heritage of relaxed California ranch-style architecture with fragrant gardens and stunning Bay Area views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Resort-like amenities include the lush courtyard gardens, the largest guestrooms on the peninsula, Sense spa and the exceptional fare at the Michelin-starred restaurant Madera. (2825 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, rosewoodhotels.com)
Where to Dine
Any tech VIP will tell you that a lunch reservation in Palo Alto is a great way to charm clients. Favorites include Resposado, purveyor of fine Mexican cuisine and equally impressive tequila and wine selection (236 Hamilton Avenue, reposadorestaurant.com), and the cutting-edge and ever-evolving menu at haute Vietnamese restaurant Tamarine. Sit at one of their communal tables and make a new friend you can add later on Facebook. (546 University Avenue, tamarinerestaurant.com)
Where to Play
A trip to the Stanford University campus is the highlight for most visitors, where you can view Hoover Tower, Memorial Church, Cantor Arts Center, Rodin Sculpture Garden and more. Gardening enthusiasts should make at stop at Sunset magazine’s gardens in Menlo Park, the Gamble Garden in Palo Alto and the Filoli Estate & Gardens, located on a beautiful estate west of Redwood City—about a 15-minute drive north on Interstate 280. Art lovers shouldn’t miss the many galleries around town or the Palo Alto Art Center, a popular venue for Bay Area and local artists.